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Pliny the Elder

The Illustrious Life of Pliny the Elder, Ancient Historian and Roman Commander

Gaius Plinius Secundus, better known in history as Pliny the Elder, was an influential administrator, officer, and author during his life.  Although he was only fifty-six years old at the time of his death, he left behind a great legacy of political respect and appreciation, as well as a reputation for being one of the strongest ancient Roman historians whose work survives to this day.  Though he was not overly appreciated during his own lifetime, the writing of this privileged military general provides much knowledge of Roman life, science, and philosophy.

Born in Como, Italy into a powerful and elite equestrian family (akin to knights), Pliny the Elder lived from 23 or 24 AD until August 24, 79 AD, the exact date of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Pompeii, in which Pliny met his final end. He had no children of his own and never married, more absorbed with his work, his writings, and travels.

In 35 AD, he traveled to Rome at the ripe young age of ten to be given a proper Roman education. There, he was taught the art of rhetoric and public speaking, both invaluable skills for someone from his wealthy upbringing. His tutelage served him well as he worked under Publius Pomponius Secundus, a renowned tragic poet who first introduced Pliny to the art of literature. Throughout the rest of his life (while on the road, and in between careers) Pliny worked tirelessly on a variety of written works.

Between the years 45 and 47 AD, Pliny found himself in Gallia Belgica as a military officer of the Roman forces, and later as leader of the cavalry. With the Roman army he widely toured the provinces, moving from Germany to the Mediterranean and possibly even to the British Isles. He aided in the defeat of such tribes as the Frisians of the lowlands of modern Germany and the Chauci between the rivers of Ems and Elbe.  During that time, he wrote a treatise on the German technique of throwing a spear while riding a horse, presumably to teach the skill to the Romans. He also wrote possibly the first Roman biography about his teacher, and later a twenty-one volume work on the Germanic wars.

“Pliny the Elder's phalera bears an inscription formed from punched dots: PLINIO PRAEF EQ; i.e., Plinio praefecto equitum, ‘Pliny prefect of cavalry’. It was perhaps issued to every man in Pliny's unit. The figure is the bust of the emperor.” Circa 50 AD.

“Pliny the Elder's phalera bears an inscription formed from punched dots: PLINIO PRAEF EQ; i.e., Plinio praefecto equitum, ‘Pliny prefect of cavalry’. It was perhaps issued to every man in Pliny's unit. The figure is the bust of the emperor.” Circa 50 AD. Public Domain

Within his written work, there is evidence that he was acquainted with numerous Roman emperors, both for better and for worse. Translations of his works reveals that he was one of the few who identified something amiss with Emperor Gaius Caligula (12–41 AD)—something he would later discover was true when Caligula went mad with lunacy and lust. Pliny was close to Emperor Claudius and is shown as not having spoken ill of Claudius' strange wife, Messalina, however, Pliny had a very negative relationship with Claudius' successor Nero. Nero was such a tyrant during his reign that Pliny purposely detached himself from the political situation to put a great deal of distance between his good name and the new emperor's. It was a smart move on his part—both for the preservation of his life and name—as when Emperor Vespasian rose to power in 69 AD, Pliny found himself once again with a friend holding the reins of the Roman Empire. 

Due to his relationship with both Vespasian and Vespasian's son Titus (79-81 AD), Pliny found himself with a plethora of procuratorships at his disposal from the years 70 to 75. From Gallia Narbonensis, to Africa, to Hispania Terraconensis, to Gallia Belgica, Pliny oversaw many of the financial and administrative responsibilities of Vespasian's provinces.

Around 77 AD, Pliny began the work for which he is best known: the Naturalis Historia .  A thirty-seven chapter book written in ten volumes, this text utilized all of the experience Pliny went through during his travels and the knowledge of his youth to create a compilation of Roman life. The book dictated astronomy, geography, anthropology, zoology, botany, medicine, magic, and mineralogy, as well as a cornucopia of other topics. The information within has proven incredibly illuminating to both modern day historians, and to the Romans during their time. 

The oldest illustrated version (1513) of the Historia Naturalis of Plinius maior (right). Also showing a 1570 edition of the famous Greek speeches, the Logoi by Demosthenes.

The oldest illustrated version (1513) of the Historia Naturalis of Plinius maior (right). Also showing a 1570 edition of the famous Greek speeches, the Logoi by Demosthenes. Wikimedia Commons

The death of Pliny the Elder is one of the most fascinating of any Roman historian. Not only was he present at the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, but he perished during it. As a commander in the Roman army, Pliny the Elder was one of many men who attempted to aid in rescue efforts following the explosion. He and his companions arrived at Campania and attempted to help friends and residents fleeing to the coast.

Some of the victims of Pompeii were sitting, some lying when the superhot gas cloud enveloped them.

Some of the victims of Pompeii were sitting, some lying when the superhot gas cloud enveloped them. (Bigstock photo)

Campania, only a short distance from Pompeii, was suffering from the eruptions, as its atmosphere was as thick and ash-filled as the famous ancient city's and Pliny died from the inhalation of it.  It is postulated that Pliny's throat was aggravated by the smoke and ash around him because of his lifelong asthma; regardless, powerful Vesuvius is considered the primary cause of the final fate of Pliny the Elder.

An eruption of Vesuvius seen from Portici, by Joseph Wright (ca. 1774-6).

An eruption of Vesuvius seen from Portici, by Joseph Wright (ca. 1774-6). Public Domain

Fast forward to 1900, when Italian engineer Gennaro Matrone was excavating Pompeii and discovered the remains of 70+ people, including a body far from the others; it was graced in bracelets and rings and was wearing a large gold necklace. Matrone had a hunch that these was the remains of Pliny the Elder. His beliefs have never been confirmed, however researchers are trying to crowdfund the resources necessary to see if the skull of that individual could really be the famed historical figure.

Featured image: Portrait of Pliny the Elder, as imagined by a 19th-century artist. ( Public Domain ), City and Lake of Como, painted by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, 1834 ( Public Domain ), an inscribed stone for Pliny the Elder in Como, Italy. ( Public Domain ); Deriv.

By Ryan Stone

References

"Pliny the Elder." Livius.org, 2015, accessed June 12, 2015. [Online] Available here.

"Pliny the Elder Timeline." The Romans- Timelines , accessed June 12, 2015. [Online] Available at:   http://www.the-romans.co.uk/timelines/pliny.htm

Gibson, Roy and Ruth Morello. Pliny the Elder: Themes and Contexts (Brill: Leiden, 2011.)

Murphy, Trevor. Pliny the Elder's Natural History: the Empire in the Encyclopedia (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2004.)

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